Choosing a Bible Translation (1)

Tom Shepherd


Choosing a Bible Translation (1)

I love the Bible. I read it every day. I teach and preach it in church. And I have the high privilege of teaching it every week at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary (Berrien Springs, Michigan) in the New Testament Department.

Sometimes I am asked: Which is the best Bible translation? This is somewhat like asking which exercise is best. When I am asked that question I smile and say, “The best exercise is the one you will keep on doing.” In a sense we can say the same thing about Bible translations. The best one is the one you will keep reading! It matters not which translation has the best manuscripts behind it, the best wording, the most erudite translators, or the best exegetical notes. If it sits on the shelf and gathers dust, it is useless for you.

But there are varieties of translations, and the question of which is most useful for a given purpose is an important question that deserves a clear answer. In my next two articles, I will take time to answer this question, setting forth the exciting and encouraging data for why we can trust the Scriptures.

We begin by looking at different Bible translations. Three types of Bible translations exist, categorized as word-for-word translations, dynamic-equivalence translations, and paraphrase translations.

Word-for-Word Translations

This type of translation seeks to translate each individual word in the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Bible into an equivalent individual word in English. Indeed, it is not uncommon in this type of translation to put in italics any additional words that must be added to clarify the meaning. An example of such translation would be Genesis 1:4 in the King James Version (KJV): “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” The “it was” was added by the translators since in Hebrew it simply states, “And God saw the light, that good . . .” This is fine Hebrew, but it does not do in English, hence the addition of “it was.”

Because of their word-for-word pattern of translation, these versions of the Bible tend to give a little closer feel of the original language patterns with additional words clearly visible in the italic words. This characteristic makes it possible for those who do not read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek to see more clearly the patterns of the original languages.

This type of translation also tends to maintain metaphors used in the original language. An example is 1 Peter 1:13 in the New King James Version (NKJV): “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind.” “Girding up the loins” was something people wearing a flowing robe in a hot, dry climate would do if they wanted to run. They would gather up the flowing robe and tuck it into their belt around their waist leaving their legs bare for quick movement. The metaphor suggests being ready for quick action.

These characteristics also produce the major drawback of word-for-word translation, a somewhat wooden sentence structure with wording that may not be easily understood by most readers unacquainted with the language patterns and metaphors. These pluses and minuses point toward the role that such translations can best fill. They are useful for more in-depth study for individuals keenly interested in getting at the original meanings of texts and unafraid to learn background data to decipher the text’s meaning.

Versions that fall into this category include the King James Version, the New King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version.

Dynamic-Equivalence Translations

Dynamic-equivalence versions of the Bible take the thought of the original language and seek to express it in an equivalent pattern in the target language. Thus instead of trying to find one word in English that matches one word in the original, this type of translation moves to a larger structure—the sentence or paragraph—and translates it as a whole.

Anyone who has learned a foreign language recognizes how this works. When I was a missionary in Brazil, I learned Portuguese. I came to the place that when I was talking to someone in this beautiful language I was not thinking in English, I had a new language center in my mind with Portuguese words for making sentences. When asked by someone to translate Portuguese into English, it is easiest to listen to an entire sentence and then translate it. Some idioms and words just do not translate easily into another language, and one must seek idioms and word patterns in the target language that match them.

Dynamic-equivalence translations read more smoothly than word-for-word translations and usually require less knowledge of idioms, metaphors, and thought patterns of the original language to make sense of reading the text. A return to 1 Peter 1:13 can illustrate this concept. The New International Version reads, “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.” The metaphor of “girding the loins of the mind” is replaced with “minds that are alert.” The gain is ease of reading for most readers of English. The loss is the colorful metaphor of the original language and culture.

The characteristics noted here point toward the best use of such translations. If I were studying the Bible with a person who had just become a Christian, an individual without background in the church or Bible study, I would recommend for their daily reading a dynamic-equivalence translation. The reason for this recommendation is to encourage the person in daily reading of God’s Word and having their heart fed with its rich truths in an easily understandable format.

Those who have been in the church for a long time little realize just how much they have absorbed over the years. Our culture is quickly becoming Bible illiterate with much greater knowledge of Hollywood movies and music than of the biblical world and its thought patterns. Dynamic-equivalence translations help bridge the gap between our present culture and the cultures and customs of the ancient world. These translations preserve some of the more easily understood metaphoric language and patterns of the original languages, but give dynamic equivalents of the harder ones.

Versions that fall in this category include the New International Version, the New English Translation, and the Good News Bible: Today's English Version.

Paraphrase Translations

This last type of translation goes further than the dynamic-equivalence model. Here the translator simplifies and interprets the original words to place them squarely within the reach of anyone in our modern culture. The translator is not tied to individual word or metaphor patterns and feels free to add words to make sense of the original meanings as he or she understands them.

An example of this type of translation is the New Living Translation of 2 Corinthians 5:1-3: “For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies.”

It is quite clear that this translation is a paraphrase that contains both added information and a particular interpretation of the original words. In the Greek text of verse 1 the Apostle Paul makes a contrast between an earthly tent and an eternal heavenly house. The words “that is, when we die and leave this earthly body” in the New Living Translation have been added by the translation team to express what they think the text is trying to say.

This interpretive style shows up again in verse 3, in which the translator describes heavenly existence as “For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies.” Translating the Greek more literally, we have this thought, “If indeed also having been unclothed, we shall not be found naked.” It is not difficult to see how the translators arrived at this paraphrase, but it illustrates that the translators were guided not solely by putting the words across in English, but also by a particular view of death and life in heaven. The concept of “naked” in verse 3, however, can just as easily, and it seems to me more correctly, be understood to represent the state of rest in the grave that we believe happens when people die.

The combination of a dynamic style of translation combined with the interpretive viewpoint of the translators is both the benefit and bane of paraphrases. These translations read very smoothly and have the appeal of speaking quite directly to people within the target culture. But they are also quite interpretive, and the reader may not realize where the Bible’s message ends and the interpreters’ viewpoint begins. For that reason, this type of translation is not recommended as a mainstay for serious Bible study. But returning to the idea at the beginning of this column, the best translation is the one a person will keep reading, whether it be a word-for-word translation, a dynamic one, or a paraphrase.

Bible versions that fall into the paraphrase category include The Living Bible, The New Living Translation, and The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.

All this discussion of various translation types may seem unnecessary to some because of the conviction that the only translation that should be used by Christians is the King James Version or the New King James Version. That is such an important question that it will be the topic of the next President’s Page. Until then, I hope you will keep reading your Bible every day. That is where the power is!